Badgers report card: Passing game shines on big stage
Wisconsin has lost its share of close football games in recent seasons, and the Badgers can add another one to the list after a 31-24 defeat against No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday at Ohio Stadium.
UW's last 12 losses have come by seven points or less. The Badgers had plenty of opportunities to secure their biggest victory of the season, but they let it slip away and fell to 3-2 on the year.
Handing out grades for Wisconsin's Week 5 performance:
Passing offense: B-plus
On one of his biggest stages, quarterback Joel Stave produced when Ohio State dared Wisconsin to pass the football. Stave finished 20 of 34 for a career-high 295 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Before the game, pundits were certain Stave would have to perform well to give the Badgers any kind of chance to win. Many assumed the running game would be there, but passing proved far more effective on Saturday.
Stave's favorite target, Jared Abbrederis, had a huge day despite the fact Ohio State knew he would get the ball. Abbrederis finished with 10 catches for 207 yards and became the first UW receiver to record 200 yards in a game since Lee Evans against Michigan State in 2003. The Badgers continue to struggle in their quest to find a reliable second receiver, but that is hardly Stave's fault.
Stave's worst play was an interception that essentially put the game away for Ohio State, though it wasn't entirely his fault because his pass protection failed him. On a second-and-19 from his own 30, Stave threw to the left sideline and was picked by Bradley Roby. Ohio State would go on to score a touchdown on the ensuing drive for a 31-14 lead.
Rushing offense: C-plus
Hey, nobody really expected Melvin Gordon would average 11.8 yards per carry and James White 7.2 as they had done through Wisconsin's first four games. But the Badgers needed more of a spark in the backfield to keep pace with the Buckeyes on Saturday.
Gordon carried 15 times for 74 yards -- a per-carry average of 4.9. White, meanwhile, carried eight times for 31 yards and scored on a 17-yard touchdown run. Gordon also suffered an apparent knee injury at the end of the third quarter and did not return.
Maybe it was unfair to expect more from Gordon and White. Ohio State packed the box with eight players and ensured the Badgers would be swarmed at the line of scrimmage.
"It was pretty tough," White said afterward. "We knew it was going to be a dogfight. They were going to put eight guys in the box and we would have to work for each yard that we got. We started off slow, but I thought we got better throughout the game. We have to start off fast and continue that through."
Passing defense: C-minus
Braxton Miller didn't torch Wisconsin's secondary the way Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly did a few weeks earlier. But his 40-yard touchdown pass to Corey Brown with one second remaining in the first half was simply inexcusable, and the Badgers are docked a full letter grade based off that play alone.
Wisconsin was playing a cover-3 zone defense when Brown got loose on a skinny post route on the left side of the field. He slipped past cornerback Peniel Jean, who let Brown go after he left his area. But safety Dezmen Southward wasn't where Jean thought he would be, and Brown caught the touchdown, which put Ohio State ahead 24-14. In a game that Wisconsin lost by a touchdown, it was perhaps the most glaring of many mistakes the Badgers could look back on.
"It's basically a play that should absolutely never happen," Southward said. "It's something obviously I knew exactly what happened, but we'll have to see it on film and definitely go from there."
Southward insisted there was no miscommunication between he and Jean, saying it was "just a bad play in general."
Even more agonizing for Wisconsin fans was that cornerback Sojourn Shelton could have intercepted a bad Miller pass thrown just before the backbreaking score.
Miller finished 17 of 25 for 198 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. His first touchdown came on a 25-yard pass to Evan Spencer less than three minutes into the game.
Wisconsin still ranks 17th nationally in passing defense (173.2 yards per game), but the Badgers didn't play like a top-20 defense on Saturday.
Rushing defense: B
Miller has a history of terrorizing opponents with his legs, and he actually became Ohio State's all-time rushing leader among quarterbacks during Saturday's game against Wisconsin. But none of those gaudy numbers have come with the Badgers on the field -- a trend that continued at Ohio Stadium.
Miller carried 22 times for 83 yards -- a yards-per-carry average of 3.8. He also was sacked twice by nose guard Warren Herring. Miller averages more than five yards per carry in his career, so the Badgers kept him in check fairly well.
Linebacker Chris Borland deserves mention for matching his career high with 16 tackles. Borland stuffed OSU running back Carlos Hyde twice in short-yardage situations and continued to demonstrate his toughness and football intellect.
None of Ohio State's touchdowns came on rushing plays. As a team, the Buckeyes carried 43 times for 192 yards, though they did outgain the Badgers on the ground. Wisconsin ranks No. 14 in the country in rushing defense (99.4 yards per game).
Special teams: B-minus
Kicker Kyle French missed a 32-yard field early in the second quarter, which could have trimmed Wisconsin's deficit to 14-10. Later in the quarter, Ohio State's Drew Basil drilled a 45-yard field goal to give Ohio State a 17-7 edge. And that moment provided a brief glimpse of what having a reliable field-goal kicker can do for a team. The Badgers trailed by two possessions and were forced to play catch-up the rest of the way.
French redeemed himself a bit by making a 42-yarder to cut the score to 31-24. But his inconsistency from distances that should be automatic continues to be alarming.
Freshman Andrew Endicott handled kickoffs just fine in his first game as the declared starter, though some were short and provided plenty of room for return men to run. Drew Meyer was steady as usual on punts, handling five kicks and averaging 40.4 yards.
Wisconsin did very little with any of Ohio State's punts. The Buckeyes punted six times, but Jared Abbrederis only returned one for three yards, fair catching any other time the ball came his way.
The fact Wisconsin lost by a single touchdown on the road against the No. 4 team in the country -- which has also won 17 consecutive games -- isn't really all that bad. But the Badgers had so many miscues that it makes you wonder what could have been.
The good news for Wisconsin is that Joel Stave continues to grow, and he played his best during a game on a huge stage. Unfortunately for Badgers fans, Wisconsin put itself in a hole that will be tough to escape in the Big Ten championship race. Ohio State has a one-game lead, and the Buckeyes have shown no signs that they'll lose anytime soon. Even one loss won't be enough to put Wisconsin into the championship.
Wisconsin didn't make enough plays to win on Saturday, and now the Badgers are staring at a bowl appearance that won't be in Pasadena for the first time in four seasons.